From Endurance to Dressage
Stuck on the Word "NO!"
Some weeks, like last week, Izzy is unbelievably fantastic. Other times, his level of resistance ranges from lil' turd to full on jackass. During my Saturday lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, Izzy was pretty stuck on the word no. The thing that makes Izzy so challenging to work with is that his reason for the "no" is never the same.
A few weeks back, we started into the new grass hay which looked nearly identical to the old grass hay. Izzy's poop got pretty loose, so we carefully mixed the old with the new. For that week's lesson, Izzy complained the whole time which I attributed to a gassy tummy. This weekend, we had a morning freeze, so his water was frozen. I got the water running, but he refused a drink. Once the lesson was over, I again offered him water, but he turned his nose up at it. Instead, he stepped to the side and took a long pee that was a lovely light yellow. So while I thought his no can do attitude might be because he was thirsty, it turned out that he simply needed to pee.
What I have learned over the many, many years that I have owned this horse is that if he feels like it, he is fantastic to ride. If he doesn't feel like it, you're S.O.L., screwed, or up a creek without a paddle. This makes consistent progress a hard thing to achieve. During the lesson - which was made particularly difficult because I could only hear about one word out of ten, long story, I just kept going back to Sean's strategy of refusing to take Izzy's bait.
That one idea, not rising to Izzy's challenge, has proven to be the solution to many of Izzy's issues. For most horses, adding leg is the key, but not for Izzy. Sometimes, yes, adding a bit of leg does work if he's already on board. If he's brewing for a fight, adding leg just adds more fuel to his fire. Like us, horses have a fight or flight response to situations they don't want to be in. Izzy's hard spooks are his flight response kicking in, but when he can't get away, he is just as happy to fight about it.
During Saturday's lesson, Izzy just wasn't feeling up to it. Rather than spook, he just kept saying no by blowing off my aids or refusing to go forward. I jumped off and grabbed the lunge whip and rode with that for a minute. After dropping it and then coming up against the same problem a few minutes later, I snapped off a thin branch which also got Izzy's engine working. Since it was too thin to actually hit him with, I eventually dropped it as it had done its job of motivating Izzy to move his butt.
When Izzy refused my aid, Sean suggested I circle him. Sean jokingly said that he wanted Izzy to be the King of Circles by the time we were finished. Every time Izzy ignored my inside leg, particularly in the shoulder-in, Sean had me do a 10-meter circle. Eventually, after dragging along the lunge whip, waving a twiggy branch, and circling, Izzy let out a big, deep breath and started working for me.
The next day, I rode with spurs to reinforce the idea that my leg is an aid that he must listen to. That reminder of course was a conversation that Izzy did not want to have, so there were a few oh, crap! moments. I didn't fight with him. I simply told him that listening to the leg was a better idea than ignoring the leg. Izzy lets me know when the spur is too much of an aid, so I dropped my heel and rode from the calf. Izzy finally got to work.
Izzy makes me feel that I am stuck in a failure cycle - I try something new, then I fail. I try again, and that too fails. What I am slowly beginning to understand is that I am not failing, I am learning. Izzy has made me a much better rider than I was before. I always knew that earning a USDF Bronze Medal did not mean I was a good rider. I am incredibly proud of that accomplishment, but I have become a much better rider through my struggle to ride Izzy well.
They don't give medals for that, but I think the struggle is worth it.
Actual Dressage Work
Saturday's lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, was one of the most fun I've had in quite a while. If you're a regular reader, you'll know that I spent most of December and January finding my joy. I was in a pretty bad place mentally. I know much of it was related to the waning daylight hours, but another part was my frustration with yet another riding roadblock. Izzy will never be an easy horse to ride, but he is even worse in the dead of winter.
During December and January, I took a break from lessons, did some fun things with Izzy, and found joy in giving to others. My cup has been refilled, and I am once again feeling excited about riding. By the time Sean joined me on the Pivo Meet, Izzy and I were well into our warm up conversation. He was listening and seemed happy to be there with me. In fact, he was so relaxed that I couldn't get him to stop stretching down. That's always a good sign.
We didn't do anything special in the lesson; we didn't need to. Izzy behaved exactly like a dressage horse should. He didn't spook, bolt, shy, or refuse - well, maybe once or twice, but he got over it immediately and got back to a work. Since he was so on board, I was able to have fun riding the movements. That's pretty much all we did. We did our leg yields well enough that after two or three in each direction we moved on to shoulder-in.
In the shoulder-in, I've been working on pushing him for more. Since I have him firmly on my outside rein, I can ask for a bigger stride without losing control. After a few of those, I turned them into renvers. I know I am supposed to hate renvers, but I actually enjoy riding them because they reveal how much control you really have. Even more fun is riding the renvers back to shoulder-in.
Because Izzy was so willing, we moved on to travers with Sean letting me know if I had enough haunches. With that going well, we used the travers to tackle our trot half passes. When we worked on half pass a few months ago, the half pass right was a disaster as Izzy just blew through my aids. This time, he stayed round and allowed me to push for just a bit more energy. In fact, I was super excited about the half passes, but of course, me being me, I immediately insisted Sean critique them. When the lesson was over, and I was untacking, I realized that I had cheated myself out of a moment to celebrate some success.
The only part of the lesson that wasn't "successful" was our work on the flying changes. While it wasn't good work in the traditional sense, we did make progress. Every time I asked for a leg yield in the canter, Izzy started anticipating the change which is a good thing. He now knows what I want, but he's still having trouble trusting that he can pop over into the new lead. Sean gave me some exercises to work on.
With spring just in front of us and summer on deck, I am once again feeling hopeful about this year's show season - even if I only do schooling shows or CDS-rated events.
USDF doesn't really need my money anyway.
Filling Up the Outside Rein
I finally had another great lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. Don't get me wrong; it isn't his fault. Izzy just doesn't always cooperate. When he's a willing partner, we get to actually dressage. When he's being a jerk, all I can do is work on ways to get his hamsters back on their wheel. On Saturday, I could tell we were going to have a good day. Sean saw it too and immediately reminded me that these are the days we ask the harder questions. Sean knows I like to ride without upsetting the apple cart, but, as he pointed out, if we don't take advantage of Izzy's quiet days, we lose an opportunity to teach him. I started asking questions.
Izzy warmed up really well without a single spook or brain fart. We worked through our usual routine of leg yield, shoulder in, and renvers. My goal for the day was to tackle the foundation of the flying change. Even if Izzy got naughty, I wanted that to remain our focus because when I ride alone and he gets really belligerent about it, I don't feel confident in my understanding of why he's resisting. With Sean there, I know he can see what's happening, so I feel much more confident about poking the bear.
When we finally got to the canter, Sean reminded me about moving Izzy's body around. On the right lead, that is getting easier and easier to do. I rode small circles, spiraled out to large circles, and leg yielded in the canter. As I leg yielded toward the rail, I realized that I had three choices: do a transition to trot, counter canter through the corner, or ask for the change on the rail. Without over thinking it, I ask for the change and got it. Izzy popped right over like we've been doing it for month. I brought him back to walk and gave him a ton of praise and a good walk break. Of the three of us, Sean, Izzy, and me, it was hard to tell who was happier. The video is from the next morning.
The right to left change, the one we had just done, is the easier of the two. The left to to right change is a whole other story. I did the same canter exercises, less successfully, and got a no way José when I asked for the change. I brought Izzy back to the walk and asked Sean what my plan of attack should be. We tried working on a right lead circle with a simple change to the counter lead, but Izzy quickly realized what was happening and refused to pick up the left lead on the circle tracking right.
Despite my strategy not working, it helped Sean get a good idea of where we are stuck. Essentially, Izzy doesn't want to fill up my right rein which means I can't straighten him in preparation for the change to the right. Sean's strategy was to go back to a true bend for the left lead canter, but he suggested I really wrap Izzy around my inside leg and over-flex him to unlock his neck. Izzy will get "round" but it's from shortening his neck, not actually being soft. As he gave on the smaller circle, I was able to straighten his neck, and like magic I could feel him on my outside rein.
For the next however long it takes, I've got some new homework. Leg yield into the flying lead change for the right to left, but focus on getting him on my right rein before I ask for the left to right change.
I love having goals, so this is good progress.
Tryna Bring Out the Fabulous
That's a Lizzo reference for all you cool kids.
In case you haven't heard me say this before: riding Izzy is hard. It's also frustrating, demoralizing, and occasionally, rewarding. He wasn't his best self this weekend for Saturday's lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. I think he had a legitimate reason, but the problem with having a reason every single time you get ridden is that your rider stops taking your reasons seriously.
We have tons of lush, green grass everywhere except in the horses' paddocks and pastures. I know, it's a California thing to have grass where the horses aren't. This is winter grass. As soon as it warms up, it turns to foxtails and dies off. Izzy has been getting bites of it here and there for the past few weeks, but I am super careful to control how much he gets as it is very rich.
While I was tacking up on Saturday morning, he pooped some really foul and stinky stuff. It also came with a wet squirt or two which is not normal. I pulled out my stethoscope, but his gut sounds were normal. Besides getting some of that lush new grass, we have started in on our new grass hay which he really likes. It looks the same as our previous load, but I am wondering if it is just bit richer than the old stuff. Either way, it was clear that he wasn't feeling quite himself.
When Izzy is uncomfortable, he's a real ass. And it doesn't have to be my leg is broken uncomfortable. If the sun is in his eyes, he feels that is all the cause he needs to check out. Knowing that, I have to be judicious in how I handle his I don't really wanna days. As we warmed up, I explained all of this to Sean who agreed we would work Izzy until he gave us tangible evidence that supported his claim to be broken.
Izzy turned out to be fine enough, but his version of pouting is to say no to every little request. He gave one or two really dirty spooks, but I simply insisted that we would continue working. Of course, the thing that bothered me most was how boring the lesson was for Sean. As soon as I had that thought, I immediately stopped in my metaphorical tracks. What the hell, Sweaney? He works for YOU! And suddenly, I saw some of the reason for why I had been so unhappy with my riding in November and December. Once again I had let myself believe that it was my job to perform for my trainer.
If I don't show major progress from one week to the next, I always feel as though I've let my trainer down. I feel like such a failure to be working on the same issue week after week. In his own riding, Sean is driven to succeed. He has big goals, and he pushes himself hard. I, too have goals - maybe not as big, but I also push myself too hard. Sometimes, I think that mixing a driven personality with an even more driven personality is a recipe for disaster.
It finally occurred to me that Sean works for me. And you know what I mean; he doesn't actually work for me, but I pay him to help me ride my horse better. When you think about it like that, what does it matter if the progress is slow? If that's where I am in my riding, then that's where he will support me. I don't stop working with my fifth graders just because they have a low reading level. No, I meet them where they are by providing scaffolded lessons to support them as they learn. Why should I worry if Sean is bored with the lesson I am having? I am certainly not bored. While we both care about my progress, I think I have been a lot more worried about the slowness of my progress than he has.
When I told him what I was thinking, I could hear the exasperation in his voice when he said the lesson was not boring. He was interested in the choices I was making as I worked Izzy through his little episode, and rather than feeling bored, he was engaged as he evaluated my riding and thought about what he could do to help me.
As I look ahead at the rest of 2023, I have decided to do some schooling shows to see if I can make this fun again. I don't want to care about how we look. I want to take all of the pressure of succeeding off the table and just ride for the fun of it. I'm looking at a schooling show in February and another one in March.
I think Lizzo is right; it's about damn time!
Shoulder-in to Something Else
It's no secret that I struggled with finding my joy through the late fall and early winter as 2022 came to a close. I was just so discouraged by what seemed like zero progress with the big brown horse. I talked to Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, and asked if he would mind if I took a few weeks off from our weekly lessons. I wasn't having fun, and I was very quickly losing any desire to ride at all. I spent the month of December riding only when I felt like it, which turned out to be at least three days a week. I did a small bit of traveling, hung out with friends, and tried some different things with my horses.
Having come out on the other side of that month of misery, I can honestly say that taking a month off was the right decision. I am happier and excited about what this year holds. During that month or so I also started volunteering and connected with old friends. If you're feeling blue, it's okay to take time off or try something new. I feel so much better for that break, and I am positive Izzy feels better for it, too.
Besides feeling refreshed, stepping away from weekly lessons for a month or so also gave me some better perspective. As I contemplated starting up with my weekly lessons again, I realized that I was a bit apprehensive. I worried that I'd immediately feel discouraged again and lose all of my new found joy and happiness. I took some time to think about life in general and realized that progress has been made. A lot of progress.
Last year at this time, most of the lessons focused on keeping Izzy in my dressage court, and I am not exaggerating. My dressage court is made up of labeled water jugs, PVC pipe, and round fence poles. Outside of the court is a pipe perimeter fence. Keeping enough control to stay within the court was frequently my goal for the lesson. Not only was I focused on staying in the court, staying on was equally important to me.
When I remembered how wild and wooly our rides were even just last year, I realized that we have made tons and tons of progress. Izzy almost never bolts any more, and if he does, it's a small scoot. We never crash through the rails either. In fact he's mostly pretty workmanlike these days. When Sean logged on for our Pivo lesson on Saturday, I explained some of this too him - all of which he agreed with, and then said that my next goal was to get consistency in the contact. Rather than bolting or spooking now, he snaps his head up or cranes his neck around to listen to whatever has caught his attention. It's frustrating, but nothing like bolting sideways at Mach 10.
To fix the off balance/distracted moments, Sean agreed that now is the time to start adding leg to compress Izzy to regain that balance. That will only work though if he hasn't fallen too far onto the forehand like he was for so long. Even just a year or two ago, people would tell me just add leg. Let him move out. Stop restricting him. Now, he's in a place where adding leg does engage his hind end. Before, it simply drove him further and further downhill as he spiraled out of control. Being able to feel the difference between knowing when adding leg will engage the hind end, lift his belly, and lower his head or send him crashing out of control is a huge step in the right direction.
When I can just squeeze to get the hind legs to engage, I do. When I feel that he is pushing too hard against me for me to add leg, I wrap him around my inside leg by doing the smallest circle I can. Sometimes that's a 15-meter circle, and other times it's a 10-meter circle. And when that won't work, I can also halt hard and fast. Halt. Right. Now. I add leg, and if he still wants to plow through my aids, I repeat the halt. It only takes a handful of times before he starts to carry himself again. Having three strategies that will affect his way of going is more progress than I realized.
For our first lesson since November, I wanted to keep things simple. We did some trot work to warm up and then did a few leg yields across the diagonal. My arena has been so wet that I had only just been able to leg yield the day before. We followed that up with some canter and a couple of attempts at the flying changes. They're nowhere near confirmed, but Sean felt like we are on a good path. I lost a little time over the past month, but up until the weather turned so wet and muddy, I was getting the changes more often than not.
Sean did show me a new exercise though that I've already been able to add to my rides. Izzy still doesn't have a medium trot. Sean showed me how to use the shoulder in to work on building the medium trot while still maintaining control. In the shoulder in, he encouraged me to push Izzy more forward, but since I already have him slightly bent, he can't hollow as easily in the bend. This is working really well. Sean also gave me a few variations. While doing shoulder in, he also suggested I leave the rail at a diagonal for a few strides but then go right back to shoulder-in on the quarterline or centerline. This will give me a way to get a stride or two of medium trot while still maintaining control.
It's nice to look forward to riding my horse again.
About the Writer and Rider
I am a lifelong rider.
I began endurance riding in 1996 where I ultimately completed five, one-day 100 mile races, the 200-mile Death Valley Encounter, and numerous other 50, 65, and 75 mile races. I began showing dressage in 2010.
Welcome to my dressage journey.
About Speedy G
Speedy went from endurance horse to dressage horse. After helping me earn a USDF Bronze medal in the summer of 2020, he is now semi-retired. Speedy is a 2004, 15'1 hand, purebred Arabian gelding. His Arabian Horse Registry name is G Ima Starr FA.
Izzy was started as a four-year old and then spent the next 18 months in pasture growing up. I bought him as a six-year old, and together, we are showing at the lower levels. He is a 2008, 16'3 hand warmblood gelding. His Rheinland Pfalz-saar International (RPSI) name is Imperioso.
National Rider Awards
State Rider Awards
State Horse Awards
CDS Sapphire Rider Award
Third Level: 63.514%
Third Level: 62.105%
2023 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
2023 Show Schedule
2023 Completed …
2023 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
Qualifying Training Level
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%: